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Skewed coverage of bird flu in the media could trigger a panic response to the threat of a human flu pandemic, warns an international group of scientists.

The scientific task force, convened in August by the UN Environment Programme's Convention on Migratory Species, says that focusing mostly on the threat from migratory birds might not only push endangered species to extinction through culling, but also divert attention from the "root causes" of bird flu.

The scientists say that basic research is urgently needed to understand the risk posed by the H5N1 bird flu virus and how it spreads.

The task force — drawn from five global organisations and four UN agencies — was created to examine the role of migrant birds in spreading bird flu.

Last week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that such birds could bring the H5N1 virus to Africa and the Middle East within weeks (see Bird flu 'is heading for Africa and Middle East').

But in a statement released yesterday (24 October), the task force said that migratory birds are not the main problem.

They say authorities should focus on improving poultry farm standards, regulating animal markets and restricting the wild bird trade.

Research is needed to show how long H5N1 can survive in habitats used by wild birds, and how it spreads between these and domestic birds, say the task force.

They add that researchers need to identify the precise migratory routes used by birds to determine which locations are at greatest risk of outbreaks.

William Karesh of the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society, an observer on the task force, says intensive poultry farming makes birds "much more susceptible to disease [and] provides ideal conditions for a virus like H5N1 to spread and mutate".

He added that the wildlife trade that moves tens of millions of birds through crowded markets means that people, and domestic and wild animals, can be over-exposed to dangerous viruses.

This month, a parrot imported from Surinam died from bird flu while in UK quarantine but vets there say it probably got the infection from Taiwanese birds in the same facility.

European Union agriculture ministers are meeting today to consider an EU-wide ban on importing wild birds.

"We are concerned that panic about [bird flu] will promote knee-jerk negative actions to both birds and wetlands," said task force member Peter Bridgewater, secretary-general of the UN Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

The scientists also warned that culling wild birds could make some endangered species go extinct.

The task force says it hopes the media will now present "a more balanced picture" of issues regarding the bird flu threat.

Erwin Northoff, spokesperson for the FAO, told SciDev.Net that the organisation's earlier warning about migratory birds was "still our line and our position".

"There are strong indications that the virus is being spread along the flyways of migratory birds," he said. "Our view is that we have to do both research on wild birds, and focus disease surveillance on poultry."